Orders of the Day — Steel Industry and Road Haulage

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 12th November 1951.

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Photo of Mr George Strauss Mr George Strauss , Lambeth Vauxhall 12:00 am, 12th November 1951

I beg to move, as an Amendment to the Address, at the end, to add: But humbly regret that the Gracious Speech contains proposals relating to the iron and steel industry and road haulage which will not assist the national effort but will create anxiety and uncertainty in two vital industries. The King's Speech consists for the most part of a number of platitudinous generalisations whose purpose, no doubt, is to conceal the fact that the Government have no plans for carrying into effect the promises of better times made during the General Election. But there are two noteworthy exceptions to this. They are the two positive proposals, or perhaps they should be called the two negative proposals, which are the subject of this Amendment, both of which, if implemented, are bound in varying degree to damage our economy.

It seems that neither of these proposals has been thought out and that no Member of the Government, so far at any rate, has the vaguest idea how and to what extent they are to be implemented or what the consequences will be. Certainly, no case has yet been made and, indeed, no serious argument has been advanced to show in what way the suggested changes can possibly benefit British industry. Benefit private interests—yes, certainly. Fat profits are likely to flow into certain private hands at the expense and, in our view, to the serious detriment of the public interest.

We on these benches expect that sort of policy from the Conservative Party, but as we are here to protect the public interest, we strongly object to both these proposals and we shall do everything we can, within the proper limits of Parliamentary procedure, to prevent the damage which, if carried, these proposals are bound to inflict on the welfare of the nation.

I want to deal first with the proposal to facilitate the extension of private road haulage activities. I very much hope that whoever is to reply for the Government will tell us precisely what is meant by that. It may mean much, or it may mean nothing much. I hope we shall be told, too, what the case is for any alteration in the present setup in the industry, apart from appeasing the voracious demands of the Road Haulage Association and filling their hungry pockets. What we want to know is how this proposed change is likely to strengthen the transport system of the country.

The House will remember that one of the main purposes of the nationalisation of the transport industry was to carry out what every commission of inquiry into the industry and what every Conservative Minister of Transport between the wars has advocated, that is, an effective coordination between all forms of transport, particularly road and rail.

Without such full co-ordination, the railways—and I think every authority agrees on this—are bound to be in a permanent state of near-bankruptcy and suffer recurring crises such as occurred in the late thirties, when the railway companies launched their nation-wide "square deal" campaign. The financial instability of the railways at that time stopped the carrying out of many urgently needed developments, the lack of which is still today seriously handicapping the country and causing grave inconvenience to the travelling public.

It was not only the public who suffered; so did the railway employees, indeed more directly and acutely, for they and their families had to put up with a level of wages not much above the poverty line. Does the Government's policy, as set out in the by King's Speech, mean that they intend by slow stages to go back to that unhappy state of affairs?

The Conservative Government of the day referred the problems raised by the "square deal" campaign to the Transport Advisory Council, which in due course made certain recommendations to harmonise road and rail charges. These were put forward as a stop-gap arrangement to last about five years during which time the Council hoped that something more permanent would have emerged. It is of interest to the House to be reminded that Lord Leathers, who was subsequently Minister of Transport, said about these proposals in 1943 that they failed to reach the root of the problem …. and that he was firmly convinced that some more radical solution had still to he found. It now appears that Lord Leathers is in favour of less co-ordination between road and rail; of allowing the more profitable traffics on the road side to be drained off into private hands, thus inevitably undermining the strength and financial stability of the railways. We should like to know why he is taking this view.